Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cut Government Down to Size, Hold the Hyperbole

One of the major tenets of modern conservative and libertarian philosophies is that government at all levels must be kept as small and inobtrusive as possible consistent with what we need it to do. This has led to calls for major cuts in the Federal government, in particular, to eliminate agencies that are unnecessary, too large, overly powerful, or otherwise undesirable from a philosophical or constitutional perspective.

For what it’s worth, I agree that government should be lean and … well … not mean, but agile and responsive, without needless layers of bureaucracy that delay action and diffuse responsibility. I believe, as do many conservatives and libertarians, that government is best when it’s closest to the governed … meaning that our most important levels of government are those at the local (city, county/parish, or state) level, where elected and appointed officials have more direct insight into local concerns.

I don’t think too many people would argue with ideas like those. But what a whole lot of people argue with are the specific cuts to be made and the final shape and responsibilities of the government at each level. It all depends on whose ox is being gored, to use the old expression.

Why has government grown so large? There are a lot of reasons; here are a few:

1. Because we wanted it to. Nobody really wants to hear that, but it's true. Because we, as a nation, have decided we want water we can drink, air we can breathe, medicines that are safe, and many other things, Congress has created cabinet departments and various agencies to see that these things are accomplished.

2. Because Congress almost never builds a "sunset clause" into legislation that establishes new agencies. Perhaps the original purpose of a particular office or agency was achieved, but bureaucracy has its own inertia, and if there's no direct order to close or life span established for it, it will go on forever.

3. Because a large government provides employment for a lot of civil servants (or bureaucrats, to use the pejorative term), and because it provides a very large number of political patronage positions* that can be used to reward the incumbent party faithful, there's not much incentive for Congress or the Executive Branch to cut back.

4. Because nobody outside of their organization knows what most government agencies do. I can pretty much guarantee you that the Cabinet officers don't have a real idea about what most of the people in their organizations are actually doing ... and if they don't, why should anyone else? 

There are probably other reasons, too, but those four will do for a start. 

So, it's easy to shout that government is too big and must be pared back to make it less expensive and more responsive, and that's not a bad thing. But what - specifically - should be eliminated?

Almost no one who runs for office is willing to be specific on this issue, because every government organization, no matter how small, has a constituency that a politician is loath to offend. The major exception in the current presidential campaign is Senator Ted Cruz, whose website lists five agencies he would eliminate, calling them by the catchy term "Five for Freedom."  They are (with the language of his website in parentheses):

The Internal Revenue Service ("end the political targeting, simplify the tax code, and abolish the IRS as we know it");

The Department of Education ("return education to those who know our students best: parents, teachers, local communities, and states. And block-grant education funding to the states");

The Department of Energy ("cut off the Washington Cartel, stop picking winners and losers, and unleash the energy renaissance");

The Department of Commerce ("close the “congressional cookie jar” and promote free-enterprise and free trade for every business"); and,

The Department of Housing and Urban Development ("offer real solutions to lift people out of hardship, rather than trapping families in a cycle of poverty, and empower Americans by promoting the dignity of work and reforming programs such as Section 8 housing").

As you might suspect, I have a few comments on his choices:

The IRS is everyone's favorite whipping boy, and abolishing it certainly has wide appeal. I hate the IRS as much as anyone. Unfortunately, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution**, ratified in 1913, granted Congress the power to levy an income tax, and Congress in turn established an agency (the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the forerunner of today's IRS) to administer the taxation program. The IRS will remain a hated and feared, yet necessary institution until other structural problems with government organization and spending allow it to be reduced (but likely never eliminated). And remember: you may hate the IRS, but it exists only to administer the tax laws which are written by ... yes, Congress.

Eliminating the Department of Education is, in my humble opinion, a staggeringly bad idea. It sounds great to "return education to those who know our students best: parents, teachers, local communities, and states," but when people (mostly conservatives) belittle teachers and state and local agencies slash education funding to pay for other things, I have little confidence in the interest or ability of state and local government agencies at those levels to educate our children***. And considering that religious conservatives ceaselessly and unconstitutionally work to impose religiously-based curricula in our schools, I think someone needs to be the watchdog. Should there be some local control over schools: yes. Should the federal government run all our schools: certainly not, but it has a legitimate role in establishing minimum national standards for education ... because a democracy relies on an educated and informed population.

I think there's a good argument to be made for cutting back on the size and power*** of the Department of Energy ... most of its functions could probably be folded into other existing agencies. But I'm not sure I understand how eliminating the DoE would "unleash the energy renaissance." Sounds like wild hyperbole to me.

Eliminating the Department of Commerce is an interesting choice for a self-described strict follower of the Constitution, because the Constitution specifically assigns the Congress the responsibility "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3). Should the Commerce Department's duties be changed or limited, or folded into another agency? Perhaps. But eliminating it outright ... bad move, and arguably unconstitutional.

Getting rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development is something I could probably support, although only after a careful review to identify programs that ought to be retained and reassigned to other agencies. This is a prime example of an agency that ought to be working at the state and local, rather than the national level, with governors and mayors working those issues for their states and cities.

So much for my opinion of what Mr Cruz wants to do. I think he's a few eggs short of an omelette, but at least he's put a plan forward. What would Bilbo eliminate from the government? We'll address that in the coming days.

Have a good day. Don't scream and shout ... study and plan and offer rational, defensible suggestions. If you can't do that, please sit down, shut up, and let the adults figure things out.

More thoughts coming.


* Every four years the Government Printing Office publishes a book titled United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, commonly known as "The Plum Book." The current (2012) version is 220 pages long and lists every position available for the incoming administration to fill, along with details of the present incumbent, pay grade, tenure, expiration date (if any), etc. It makes for some fascinating reading.

** "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

*** Mary Lou Bruner, 68, a former kindergarten teacher running for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education, has claimed on social media that President Obama worked as a gay prostitute in his youth to support a drug habit, that the United States should ban Islam, that the Democratic Party had John F. Kennedy killed, and that the United Nations had hatched a plot to depopulate the world. She rejects teaching the theory of evolution in schools in favor of creationism ... clearly unconstitutional and wildly out of alignment with mountains of scientific evidence,


Deena said...

Writing in sunset laws is a great idea! It's a chance for government to correct its mistakes.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Dept. of HUD should be scrutinized carefully. As for the Dept. f Education, we're often trifecta screwed: federal, state, and local levels. State governments can mandate the darnest things too.

Mike said...

This was a lot of thinking to do at 4:30 in the morning. You have my permission to take a long nap this afternoon.

There are over a thousand people running for president. Are you one of them? Where do I vote for you?

Chuck Bear said...

I like your ideas! They don't promise pie in the sky like politicians do. Constitution amendment change can be done, but it's a bitch of a job to do it.

allenwoodhaven said...

A thoughtful and well reasoned take on this topic. Unfortunately for Mike and me, as well as many of your readers, you'd never make it in politics. You make too much sense!

If so many people weren't so untrustworthy, we wouldn't need such a big government. We need regulations/laws to keep citizens safe and opportunities to be (at least relatively) open to all. Enforcing them is a whole other matter. Downsize the government? A good idea but one to be done very carefully by neutral parties, neither conservative or liberal, who won't blindly follow their respective dogmas.

The Bastard King of England said...

Often people talk about less government or less spending, without getting down to specifics. And they don't want to give specifics,